We Still Need Band-Aids

Lately, I’ve been wrestling with the polarizing topic of food banks. Food banks are the latest ‘love to hate’ among progressives, and I can sometimes unwittingly find myself getting swept up in the rhetoric. Of course I want to be part of a movement to end hunger – sign me up! Thanks to a project I’m involved in, I’ve had a chance to dig a little deeper into this polarizing topic.

Clearly, food banks won’t solve the problem of hunger any more than Band-Aids will stop people from getting cuts and scrapes. Like Band-Aids, which don’t address the many and varied ways we get injured, food banks don’t address the numerous and complex root causes of hunger. For now, though, it appears that we need them. For reasons that range from illness and disability to job loss, close to 900,000 Canadians access food banks on a monthly basis1.
As a society, we are recognizing the complexity and urgency of the challenges we face. As we do so, we are making significant investments in searching for root-cause solutions. We’ve set ourselves audacious and laudable goals, such “zero hunger”2. And so we should. It’s unacceptable, for example, that people have to choose between paying rent and feeding themselves and their children. The uncomfortable reality, though, is that while we are striving for a future without hunger, there are people who need food – today.
Food bank use is often cited as an indicator of progress towards solving the issue of hunger in our communities. Hunger is tricky to measure, so we employ food bank use as a proxy: fewer visits to the food bank equals reduced hunger in that community, which adds up to progress3. Yet in communities across the country, food banks continue to stand as reminders that, so far at least, we have failed to solve this challenge. We begin to see the existence of food banks themselves as the problem, not just the proxy. We wonder aloud how we might eliminate food banks, perhaps hoping that this will somehow end hunger.

Our expectations of food banks change. We forget that they are intended to be a stop-gap – a temporary response to a problem for which we do not yet have a long-term solution. A Band-Aid.

We need food banks that excel at collecting, storing and distributing massive amounts of food. This is the narrow, focused, and – ideally – impermanent role that food banks play as part of a much broader system. Increasing the connectedness and the quality of the relationships between the elements of the system can only help. While we continue to pursue longer-term, transformative solutions that include policy change and critical social supports, food banks help ensure that people who are in crisis today get food.  

Band-Aids cannot prevent scrapes, nor can they heal them. They can simply stem the bleeding. And we are bleeding.

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1 Hunger Count 2015. (https://www.foodbankscanada.ca/getmedia/01e662ba-f1d7-419d-b40c-bcc71a9f943c/HungerCount2015_singles.pdf.aspx?ext=.pdf)
2 UN Sustainable Development Goals. (http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sdgoverview/post-2015-development-agenda.html)
3 Homeless shelters are another example of a proxy. If there are fewer people staying in shelters, this may be an indicator of a community’s progress towards reducing poverty.